“Naughty Puritans”: Review of Improper Bostonians

Originally published in Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review 10/31/98 Vol. 5:4

By queer coincidence, on the day that I received Improper Bostonians I attended a screening of Jeff Dupré’s new documentary Out of the Past. Of the powerful film’s five stories depicting important Americans enamored of their own gender, the first two tell of Puritan minister Michael Wigglesworth and the “Boston marriage” of Annie Fields and Sarah Orne Jewett. The fact that these historical figures also appear in the pioneering volume Improper Bostonians underscores the claim that “founded in 1630, Boston has a history virtually as old as the history of Europeans in America; documenting homosexuality here means documenting it back to our nation’s origins.”

Improper Bostonians documents Boston’s lesbian and gay history from the 17th century to 1969, and is obviously a labor of love by the History Project, which was born in 1980 as the Boston Area Lesbian and Gay History Project and describes itself as “a volunteer group of archivists, historians, researchers, writers, designers, and activists committed to uncovering, preserving and presenting the rich contributions of lesbians and gay men over three and a half centuries of Boston history.” Their early activities included the production of a slide show, “Our Boston Heritage,” which they presented in bars, meetings, and conferences throughout the U.S. and Europe. In 1995 they published, in collaboration with the Boston Gay and Lesbian Architects and Designers, an 18″ x 24″ map entitled, “Location: A Historical Map of Lesbian and Gay Boston.” In the following year their research culminated in the mounting of a large exhibit at the Boston Public Library entitled, “Public Faces/Private Lives: Boston’s Lesbian and Gay History, 1600-1969,” which was seen by over 55,000 in that location before traveling to two other Massachusetts venues.

And now their research has been collected and published in this handsome volume. Its 212 pages are full of remarkable information that, while specific to the “Athens of America,” is frequently of national significance. The eye-pleasing graphic design incorporates an astounding collection of well-reproduced photographs, drawings, letters, and other ephemera depicting important personages and events throughout the city’s queer history. Perusing these pages is tantamount to wandering through the cases of a meticulously curated exhibit. The strict chronological arrangement and detailed table of contents does not, however, alleviate the vexing lack of an index when trying to (re)locate specific facts and figures with which the volume is filled.

“Puritans in drag,” the catchy title of one of the book’s sections, includes recently uncovered documents from the 1690’s, such as the original draft of the Massachusetts law forbidding the wearing of clothing prescribed for the opposite sex, as well as reproductions of documents about female transgressors of that law. Photographs of cross-dressing Bostonian men and women are sprinkled liberally throughout the book. Many famous names appear, including Herman Melville with his “reckless emotional attachment” to the older Nathaniel Hawthorne. We meet the Boston-born actress Charlotte Cushman, whose complicated romantic circle included the sculptor Emma Stebbins, the artist Harriet Hosmer, and the African-American sculptor Edmonia Lewis; Mayflower descendent Prescott Townsend, who reported his life as an activist for gay rights to his fellow Harvard graduates of the class of 1918; and Katharine Lee Bates, lyricist of “America the Beautiful,” who enjoyed a 25-year relationship with Katharine Coman.

Nineteenth-century women of privilege began attending women’s colleges, such as Wellesley, Radcliffe, Simmons, Wheaton, and Mount Holyoke, which in turn encouraged close bonding, at least before 1875. An excerpted letter refers to the ritual of “smashing” between two women: “If the `smash’ is mutual, they monopolize each other and `spoon’ continually, and if it isn’t mutual, the unrequited one cries herself sick and endures pangs unspeakable.” Some of these may have developed into “Boston marriages,” the term used to describe adult women involved in long-term relationships. “The women who entered into these relationships referred to themselves as spinsters, celibate women, or women involved in a romantic friendship; many today would probably identify themselves, or be identified, as lesbians.” The book offers many photographs of paired women to powerfully document this institution.

Boston’s reputation as a puritanical bastion was fanned by the famous phrase “Banned in Boston,” which resulted from the establishment in 1878 of a regulatory agency called the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice. Boston’s international notoriety is apparent in a letter from an anonymous Bostonian, reprinted by the pioneering German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in his 1914 Monthly Report of the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, which exclaims: “And how many homosexuals I’ve come to know! Boston, this good old Puritan city, has them by the hundreds.” By the way, a parenthetical note incorrectly has Hirschfeld murdered by the Nazis. Although the research institute he founded in Berlin was destroyed by the Nazis, Hirschfeld had escaped to Nice, where he died on May 14, 1935, his 67th birthday.

A “map of bars and gathering places, 1920-1960,” includes photographs of the façades and frequenters of the establishments, and represents a wealth of research, but would have been even more valuable if the street addresses and dates of operation had been included. Among these, Playland, referred to in the book’s subtitle, is Boston’s oldest gay bar, established in 1938 and apparently still going strong. Whether Boston is truly, as the book claims, “the American city with the longest recognized history of gay and lesbian life,” Improper Bostonians effectively demonstrates that Boston’s story is representative of America’s historical struggle with homosexuality. One can hope that Boston’s example will inspire other communities to collect and preserve their local lesbian and gay heritage, to continue efforts to establish permanent archives, to mount public exhibits, and to produce books of this kind that document the historical reality of gay people.